Travelling with Horses

Learn how to travel safely with your horses with these trail and horse trailer tips.
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Learn how to travel safely with your horses with these trail and horse trailer tips.
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As any parent can tell you, a road trip with a 2 year old is no picnic. There's all the stuff you have to pack: pampers, playthings, car seats, DVDs, Cheerios. It takes a lot of preparation before you hit the road. When that 2 year old is a horse, the work is times two. Like a child, a horse-young or old-needs a lot of gear in order to weather a long road trip. But horses also need special care along the way to keep them safe and healthy.

Most of us trailer our horses at one time or another, but it's usually a short drive to a nearby show or trail ride. However, if the trip is going to be a long one, you need to do a little planning and a lot of prep work.

Horses aren't cargo; they're living, breathing creatures that can suffer from the unnatural confinement and the rumble of the road.

In general, broke horses trailer pretty well. Most can handle a couple of hours locked up in a metal box. But when the hours stretch from dawn to dusk, or even into days, it requires a lot more from the horse…and a lot more from you.

Pros who haul their horses many miles to distant shows and rodeos each have their own routine. Some tie their horses, some don't. Some wrap the legs, some don't. But there are things almost all of them do to help ensure that their animals arrive safe, not sick.

All the Moving Parts

  • Check and recheck your tow vehicle and trailer to ensure they are horse safe and road worthy, inside and out.
  • Vaccinate and deworm your horse several weeks prior to departure.
  • Provide hay, rubber mats, and bedding inside the trailer.
  • Offer your horse water and check the temperature inside the trailer at every stop.
  • Never unload horses by the roadway.
  • Build in rest breaks every few hours in which you stop and turn off the engine.
  • Limit your travel to 500 to 600 miles per day, and overnight in places with horse-safe accommodations.

Advance Planning
The preparation actually begins a week or two before you're scheduled to leave. Colic is a very real threat on long trailer trips, so do everything you can to ward off this debilitating bellyache in advance. Deworm the horse ahead of time-at least a week before you leave. Get all vaccinations and boosters done at least two weeks before your trip to allow them to take affect. Keep an extra close eye on the horse in the days leading up to departure to be sure no illness, such as a respiratory problem, is sneaking up on you. Be sure the horse is eating and drinking normally and having no problems, such as diarrhea or dark urine. A sick horse is no dream to have at home-it can be a nightmare on the road.

Even your healthy horse will need proof of vaccinations and a health certificate. Although a negative Coggins test result is pretty standard, every state has its own health requirements. Check the current requirements in each state you plan to travel through. Be sure there is no unusual outbreak of a disease in an area along your route that might require you to have a special immunization, or which might cause your horse to be quarantined when you try to return. You can find out what's required in each state by calling the automated information line of the Center for Epidemiology and Animal Health (800-545-8732) from a touch-tone phone, or check the website at www.aphis.usda.gov/vs/sregs. (Contact information for the veterinarian of each state is available on that site.)

Make sure all vaccinations are up to date and won't run out before your return trip. Put all of your health certificates in one envelope or in plastic pages in a binder so they'll be easy to produce if needed. In many western states, brand inspections (also called ownership inspections) are required; although the horse's registration papers are useful for identification, they do not replace a required brand inspection. Also take along a list of members in any horse organization you might belong to. Most horse people are more than willing to help a fellow horseman having trouble on the road.

It's also a good idea to have a list of places where you can stable your horse overnight, if necessary. You can find some people willing to put up a horse for the night as well as horse-friendly bed and breakfast establishments on the Internet at www.horsemotel.com and www.horsetrip.com.

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Good Trailer, Good Horse
Don't forget a "health check" for the trailer and tow vehicle, too. Get the oil changed and have the fluids, belts, and tire pressure checked in the tow vehicle. Take the trailer to the dealer for a pre-flight check, or do it yourself if you're competent in such things. Be sure the tires are good. Many trailer tires dry out long before the tread signals it's time to replace them. Lots of tread doesn't mean a thing if the tires are old and cracking on the sidewalls. Setting out on a 1,000-mile ride on iffy tires is inviting trouble.

While you need to go with whatever type of trailer you have, most experienced long-distance haulers feel a horse rides better standing on a slant rather than facing forward. And a gooseneck trailer generally gives a less stressful ride than a tow-behind style. But whatever type of trailer you have-as long as it's safe-is fine.

Once the truck and trailer are serviced, hook up the trailer and check the lights and turn signals. If you have no one to look for you, back up to something reflective-like the windows of the house-so you can look in the rearview mirror and see if the brake lights in back are working. Make sure the breakaway battery is charged and the safety chains and hooks are in good shape. Hinges and latches on drop-down windows, tail curtains, ramps, and doors all need a look-see.

Double check that you have at least minimal road safety equipment on board, like flares, warning triangles, flashlights, and a jack or drive-on lift system strong enough to lift the trailer with horses in it. You don't want to be unloading horses on a busy highway so you can change a tire.

When you're sure the rig is right, that's half the battle. The other half is what you put in it. Of course, a well-schooled horse is paramount to having an uneventful trip. Work with the horse ahead of time to be sure he will load easily and seems comfortable in the trailer-particularly if it's a trailer the horse has not ridden in before. Take the animal for some short rides around your area to get him used to the trailer. If you can, get in the trailer yourself (without the horse) and have a friend drive you around the farm to see what it's like to be inside while it's moving. Scope out and fix any unnecessary noises or other "monsters" that might frighten your horse or make him nervous on the journey.

One thing is paramount: don't haul a horse on a bare floor. Trailer floors should be covered with rubber mats. But it's even more important to have shavings on top of the mats. Aside from the jarring legs get from standing in a moving vehicle, a lot of horses will not urinate on a bare floor; bedding will help. On a long ride, six to eight inches of shavings is recommended. Choose a clean, high-quality bedding product that is relatively dust free to prevent respiratory problems.

What to Pack
Some horses won't drink just any water and dehydration can become a real danger when you're traveling. If you can, take along some water from home or start adding a little molasses or drink flavoring to your horse's water at home a week or so before you leave. Take some along to add to the strange water he will encounter along the way and at your destination. If you feed a brand of grain not available nationwide, take it along. It's best if you don't have to change feeds, but if you can't cart enough for the entire trip, take enough so you can mix it into the new feed-just as you would at home when introducing any new feed. Have enough good quality hay on board to keep your horse's hay bag or manger filled the entire trip. Free-choice hay can go a long way toward keeping a horse calm and busy on a long ride.

Some veterinarians and experienced haulers do not recommend feeding grain to a horse before leaving on a long trip or along the way. Grain can sometimes cause colic, so sticking with good, clean hay can help minimize your chances of colic on the road.

You will need some first aid supplies, too. A minimal first aid kit for a horse would include an antiseptic salve, some gauze pads, cotton padding or polo wraps, and a roll of elasticized wrap. Discuss with your vet whether you should carry Banamine in case of colic-and in what situations it would be appropriate to administer it.

As a precaution, put your name and cell phone number on a tag and attach it to your horse's halter. It's a scary thought, but it's always possible a horse could get loose, either by accident or from a barn at an overnight stop.

If you know you're going to be traveling in hot weather, the temperature in the trailer is a big issue. Buy an inexpensive thermometer to put in the trailer-out of horse reach, of course. Check it as soon as you get out of the truck at every stop-before you pump gas or go for food. If the temperature is too high, do something to cool things down. A hose with a nozzle that can adjust to a fine spray can be useful if you stop someplace where you can hook it up to a faucet. Spraying a fine mist through the trailer window can help cool the interior and the horse. But be sure you prepare the horse to accept this at home before trying it on the road. Take along some fly spray, too. Most flies can't keep up with a trailer trucking down the Interstate, but there will be a new crop waiting at every stop. If you know you're going to travel through a cold climate or through the desert where nights can get cold, take along a blanket to put on the horse when the temperature drops.

To Tie or Not to Tie
Whether or not to tie a horse in the trailer is controversial-everyone has his or her opinion. The type of trailer may have something to do with the decision but, in general, it's probably best to tie. You don't want a horse in a narrow stall to get his head turned around and not be able to get it back, or to be able to reach over a partition to aggravate a buddy. In a stock trailer it doesn't matter as much, and leaving a horse loose enables him to lower his head to cough and clear his lungs of dust from the road, the hay, and the shavings. If you do tie your horse, be sure he has enough rope to be able to move back and touch his butt to the back wall or butt bar. Surprisingly, this simple thing can help keep a horse that panics from lunging forward and leaping over the chest bar or up into the manger.

If you tie the horse, use a leather halter, not a nylon one. It's better to err on the side of safety and have the halter break and free the horse if he gets into a dangerous position inside the trailer. Use tie ropes with panic snaps. And always have a sharp pocket knife on you so you can cut the tie and free a horse in an emergency situation.

To Wrap or Not to Wrap
Many people wouldn't think of hauling anywhere without wraps or shipping boots to protect their horses' legs. Others feel the dangers outweigh the benefits should the wraps shift, tighten, or come undone while the horses are in transit.

However, the day of departure is not the time to introduce your horse to leg wraps. Most horses need time to adjust to the sensation. They may hold their legs up, walk stiffly, or even stomp and kick to try to rid themselves of them until they get used to them. Several applications pre-trip will be important.

If you do use boots or wraps, check them every time you stop to be sure they are still properly in place and that no shavings have worked underneath them causing distress or irritation. If the horse starts to paw or stomp, the wraps may be a factor. Watch for swelling above the wraps, too.

To Unload or Not Unload

In general, it's better not to unload horses when you stop for short rest breaks. And you certainly don't want to unload a horse on the side of the road. If your horse has been traveling long enough that he needs to be taken out of the trailer, plan the route to include a horse-safe stopover away from major roadways and somewhere fences and gates can be closed to keep the horse contained. A horse farm, trailhead, or fairgrounds may afford this opportunity.

Most experienced haulers give the horses breaks by letting them stand quietly in the trailer when they stop for a meal. At that time, offer water, check the horses over, and then let them rest from the vibration of the road. Stopping gives them an opportunity to relax and urinate, if they will. Make sure the vents and windows are open and that there is adequate airflow. Then readjust the ventilation before you get back on the road.

Stopping Overnight

A lot of people who are not hauling under pressure try to limit the travel day to 500 to 600 miles. If the trip is longer than a good day's drive, or if the terrain is rough, causing the horse to have to work hard to keep his balance, consider stopping overnight. But before you sign the register or unload the horse, look at the accommodations. Be sure the stall is safe and secure before committing to an overnight stay. If you are attending a show or clinic, try to arrive a day or two ahead of time, if at all possible, so the horse can rest and recuperate and adjust to the new surroundings.

Most people who regularly haul horses long distances rarely have a serious problem. That's because they prepare. The occasional flat tire is inevitable, but they ensure that the trailer is prepped for the trip. They do a pre-flight check and are sure the horse is trained to handle the confinement. If you do the same, you should be able to cover 500 to 600 miles a day with little or no ill effects and arrive at your destination with your horse in good health…and willing to get back in the trailer for the return trip.